Moscow hostage-takers declare they're ready to die, ready to kill

Theater where 600 held may be wired with bombs

October 25, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Chechen guerrillas holding hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater said in a videotape yesterday that they were prepared to die and take the "souls of the infidels" with them, even as they released five hostages and the body of a woman they killed in the theater.

The group of about 30 fighters, working with remarkable discipline, threatened to shoot the remaining captives, who numbered about 600, and blow up the theater unless the Russian government capitulated to their demands to stop assaults on rebel forces in Chechnya, negotiate with its separatist government and eventually withdraw all Russian troops.

Early today, a security official said the rebels agreed to release all 75 foreigners they were holding captive, the Associated Press reported.

Embassies were being requested to send representatives to the scene to meet their freed citizens, Federal Security Service spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said. The foreigners included citizens of the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Australia, Azerbaijan and Germany.

The rebels did not say they planned to release the hundreds of Russian hostages.

Until now, many Russians had managed to ignore the war, which has been grinding on in an apparent stalemate while killing scores of Russians and Chechens a month.

Suddenly, though, the battle has moved from the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains to a Moscow theater less than three miles from the Kremlin.

The seizure occurred about 9 p.m. Wednesday when the guerrillas arrived in a convoy of jeeps, ran on stage, fired shots into the air and announced they were taking hostages.

According to a rebel Web site, the guerrillas are led by Movsar Barayev, nephew of warlord Arbi Barayev, who reportedly died last year. Some Chechen separatists, who say the movement has been hurt by criminal gangs acting in their name, already regarded the Barayev clan as a radical faction.

The body of a 20-year-old Russian woman was shown on television being carried out on a stretcher. She was shot in the chest as she tried to flee yesterday, according to the Federal Security Service.

Russian news media reported that a guerrilla fired a grenade launcher at two other women yesterday as they scrambled to freedom. One was wounded.

Neither the government of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin nor leaders of Chechnya's Russian-backed regime seemed ready to make concessions.

Appearing on television yesterday afternoon, Putin called the seizure of the hostages one of the largest terror attacks in history. He charged that it was planned in "one of the foreign terrorist centers."

He did not say where that might be or who is behind the assault. Russian military officials say the Chechen separatists are financed by radical Islamic groups.

No change in tactics

Sulyan Makmoyev, deputy mayor of Grozny, predicted in an interview in Moscow that there would be no halt to military operations, including the infamous "cleansing operations" by Russian troops - house-to-house searches of entire villages which, human rights groups say, frequently lead to the disappearance and death of young men caught in the dragnet.

"Nothing will change in tactics in Chechnya," Makmoyev said.

A spokesman for the separatist government said it was not to blame for the hostage-taking.

"What's happening now is a desperate attempt of an independent-acting group," said the spokesman, Aslambek Kadiev, in an interview with BBC-TV in London. "It's not true that the Chechens are connected to any terrorist organization."

In Washington, the White House issued a statement denouncing the takeover: "There are no causes or national aspirations that justify the taking of innocent hostages."

Relatives of the hostages were left feeling powerless. Anatoly Andiranov stood yesterday among a score of other red-eyed, chain-smoking Russians at a trade school a short distance from Moscow's Melinkov theater - the former Palace of Culture for Moscow's Ball-Bearing Factory - where Andiranov's 32-year-old daughter and the other hostages are being held.

"Today we are crying," said Andrianov, 58. "But in the future, mothers in Rostov and Khabarovsk" - widely scattered Russian cities - "will cry, too. This civil war should be stopped. You should say this to the whole world."

Plea from prisoner

Hours after Andrianov spoke, his daughter, Anna, a reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda, talked to a radio station from the theater on her cell phone. She pleaded with authorities not to storm the theater, where guerrillas had reportedly wired explosive charges to chairs, columns and themselves.

"We are afraid that there will be attempts to free us, and this will kill us," Andrianova said.

Dmitry Yefimenko, whose son, Igor, 19, is a hostage, kept a vigil at the technical school. He, too, called for the government to meet the guerrillas' demands.

"If there was no war, this would not have happened," he said. "All people of the world, Americans too, help us, please."

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